Test cricket makes a welcome return on Wednesday as the West Indies begin their three-match tour of England in Southampton and Ed Hawkins believes they are being underestimated by the market...
"Don't be surprised if we see collapses from the middle order. A team looking cosy at 140 for four could be all gone for 180 or so"
England v West Indies
Live on Sky Sports Cricket
The collective sigh of relief in the shires at the belated start of England's international summer is enough to pose risk of a second spike. These are the times will live in.
Covid-19 is a living hell for millions but another symptom of the awful disease is that the return of Test cricket is welcomed with almost unprecedented excitement. It's not a crime to welcome some respite.
It is also easy to forget that England's transition as a Test team has been delayed. They are searching for a combination to win in Australia next year. Progress has been okay, although their win in South Africa was tempered by a the fact that the Saffers are in an awful state.
England finally have an opening partnership they have confidence in but doubts remain about Joe Denly and Zak Crawley who will bat at Nos 3 and 4. Batting is an issue.
In truth, Crawley would miss out if Joe Root, the skipper, was not absent to be at the birth of his child. Talisman Ben Stokes has been made captain, a decision which our own Graeme Swann has called "backwards".
England are likely to resist the temptation to pair Jofra Archer with Mark Wood and instead rely on old stagers Stuart Broad and Jimmy Anderson. Spinner Dom Bess is expected to squeeze out Chris Woakes for the final spot.
Probable England XI Burns, Sibley, Denly, Crawley, Stokes (capt), Pope, Buttler (wkt), Bess, Archer, Broad, Anderson
It might also have escaped your attention that West Indies are the holders of the Wisden Trophy. At the start of 2019 Kemar Roach, Shannon Gabriel and Jason Holder combined pace and precision to take an unassailable 2-0 lead in the three-Test series.
It is the West Indies bowling which so excites punters. If you're a believer that an ability to take 20 wickets in the long format is paramount, then this lot fit the bill. They could also use Alzarri Joseph, a tyro, but are instead likely to turn to the canny tweak of the enormous Rahkeem Cornwall.
Yes, there are doubts about their batting. It is slightly less reliable than England's. But they tantalise. Kraigg Brathwaite has a great record against England, few have as much talent as Shai Hope and Jermaine Blackwood is a well-organised performer. They bat deep, too, with Roston Chase and Holder dangerous. This is a fiercely competitive outfit.
Probable West Indies XI Campbell, Brathwaite, Brooks, Hope, Blackwood, Chase, Dowrich (wkt), Holder (capt), Cornwall, Roach, Gabriel
Pitch taking spin
The Ageas Bowl pitch was criticised for being slow and low in England's intra-squad warm-up match. But it is hardly surprising with ground staff having preparation disrupted by the pandemic.
Ollie Pope, who adapted beautifully, said the ball did not carry through to the wicketkeeper and that it started to turn towards the end of the game, which ended in a draw.
There have been only three Tests previously at the venue. Against India in 2018, England won a thriller. There was seam and swing and spin. Moeen Ali took four wickets in the fourth innings (and nine in the match) as India failed to chase 245. Four years earlier Anderson and Moeen took seven and eight apiece as they rolled India.
Light rain is forecast for the afternoon of day two but we don't expect the weather to come to the assistance of those who, wrongly in our view, reckon there's any value in a draw at [6.60] on the Exchange.
Big value on visitors batting first
England are [1.35] and West Indies [9.00]. Ever since this game was given the go-ahead we have spent time trying to justify such a huge gulf between the teams and we've come up with nowt.
Few would argue that England are more likely to win but that's not what betting is about. Are they the value at such a price to earn our financial support? No.
Home advantage, as revealed by psychotherapist Gary Bloom on Cricket...Only Bettor episode 36, is negligible when there is no home crowd to roar you on. And on the same show the numbers have been crunched to reveal that these two teams are well-matched.
Indeed, England's expected average for their probable XI has them in for 302 runs playing West Indies' 339. The tourists also have the edge with the ball in terms of strike rate over the last four years. England's cumulative average rate for their five-man attack is 61. West Indies' is 55 and in Roach they have the outstanding bowler on recent data, as explained here.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with taking the Windies price now. But if you want to wait for the toss and take a slightly smaller number (possibly [6.00]) with the Windies batting first and therefore able to deploy Cornwall and Chase as spinners on a wearing pitch, then it would be a shrewd and confident selection.
For in-play bettors, be aware that England's tail has had no time in the middle and the West Indies tail failed to wag in their warm-up. Don't be surprised if we see collapses from the middle order. A team looking cosy at 140 for four could be all gone for 180 or so.
For more tips and insight on the First Test, check out the latest episode of Cricket...Only Bettor
Ed Hawkins P-L
Based only on available prices. Does not include back-to-lay in-running match advice or commission rate. Figures 2013-2016 on 1pt level stakes. New points system (0.5pt-5) introduced for 2017. Includes Hawk-Eye stats column p-l
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Back West Indies batting first at [6.00] or better (2pts)